All the Rage

Commentary on the scientific study of anger

Five Things to Know About Anger

Five facts about anger and why it matters.

Anger is a frequently misunderstood emotion. People confuse it with aggression and violence, they think of it as mostly unhealthy, and they fail to recognize the times in their lives when their anger has been positive.

To try and rectify those misunderstandings, here are five important things to know about anger.

Anger is different from aggression

Often, anger is confused with aggression. However, the two experiences are actually quite different. Anger is an emotion. It is the mild frustration one might feel when his or her spouse forgets to make dinner reservations to the rage some feels when treated truly cruelly.

Aggression, meanwhile, is a behavior where the intention is to harm someone or something. Aggression can be physical like hitting, slapping, or pushing someone. It can also be verbal like name calling, using foul language, or other sorts of insults. So, if you are driving along and someone cuts you off by making a turn in front of you, anger is the emotion you feel while aggression might be your behavioral response to the event (e.g., honking, aversive hand gestures).

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The reason this distinction is important is because anger often results without an aggressive response. In the example I just used of a person being cut off by another driver, most people would get angry but few would engage in any sort of behavior designed to harm the offending party.

People get angry under fairly predictable circumstances

People become angry when faced with situations that they see as unpleasant and unfair. They will get even angrier if they blame someone else for the situation or think that it could have been avoided.

Why, then, do some people get angry more often than others? It's not that they are faced with these sorts of circumstances more often than other people. It's that they are more likely to perceive situations as meeting these criteria than other people. For example, if you are waiting in line at the grocery store and someone cuts in to the line ahead of you. You could read that situation in a couple of different ways (e.g., that person knew I was here and cut me off on purpose vs. that person must not have seen me). One of those interpretations will lead to greater feelings of anger because you are interpreting the situation as unpleasant, unfair, avoidable, intentional, etc.

Anger is not inherently bad

One of the most common misconceptions about anger is that it is bad for you. It's not. In fact, anger is a valuable emotion as it helps people confront injustice. It alerts us to the fact that we have been wronged or treated unfairly and it energizes us to respond to that injustice. Much like hunger motivates us to eat, thirst motivates us to drink, and fear motivates us to avoid things that are dangerous, anger motivates us to respond to confrontation and unfairness.

Anger can be expressed in many different ways

Perhaps one of the reasons why people confuse anger and aggression is because they think of anger as only being expressed in aggressive ways. In truth, however, anger can be expressed in an infinite number of ways. Yes, aggression is one of them. However, so is assertiveness, problem solving, exercise, suppression, etc. In fact, while the appropriate response when angry depends on the context of the situation, the best way to express anger is usually through some sort of prosocial, problem-solving behavior. In other words, the best approach is usually to try and solve whatever problem caused the anger in the first place.

Anger can cause a variety of problems for people

Everyone knows that anger can be problematic for people. We have all read about cases of people who lost their temper and hurt someone or hurt themselves. However, people don't always recognize the scope of the types of problems that can emerge from anger. While arguments, damaged relationships, physical fights, and risky driving are fairly common, we see several other types of consequences that emerge from maladaptive anger. For example, it's not uncommon for people to damage property, intentionally or unintentionally, while in a fit of rage. It's also not uncommon for people to abuse substances, including nicotine and alcohol, when angry. Chronic anger has been known to lead to long-term health consequences and, finally, anger can lead people to experience other uncomfortable emotions like sadness, fear, or guilt.

 

Ryan Martin, Ph.D. is an anger researcher and the Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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